Listen to Berkeley Talks episode #142: Timnit Gebru on how change happens through collective action.
[Music: “Silver Lanyard” by Blue Dot Sessions ]
Intro: This is Berkeley Talks , a Berkeley News podcast from the Office of Communications and Public Affairs that features lectures and conversations at UC Berkeley. You can subscribe on Spotify, Apple Podcasts or wherever you listen. New episodes come out every other Friday.
Timnit Gebru: Hi everybody!
I have to do this because I’m short, so in order to see the graduates, I’m tiptoeing.
First things first. We need to celebrate today. You did this. I really don’t have words to describe the kind of time we’re in. You’re not crazy. It’s real. You got this degree in one of the worst times I’ve lived through, probably the worst time. Pandemic, wildfires, waking up to orange skies, I don’t know if you remember that? It felt like Armageddon. Wars. Genocide.
It’s real. The whole world feels like it’s on fire and you got this degree in the midst of that so you need to take the moment to celebrate. Think about what you’ve accomplished. Often in life, we move on from one goal to another without taking a breather to soak in our accomplishments of the current goal and celebrating. We create moving goalposts until we’re never satisfied and we want more and more and more. Take this time to celebrate your accomplishments today and give yourselves a hand. Let’s give yourselves a hand.
So, this is my first time giving a commencement speech. I’ve never given a commencement speech before. So, the one I remember for me was by Steve Jobs at my undergraduate institution in 2005.
It was a famous speech, but I was too tired to listen. My family was lost. It was sunny. I was like are you guys here yet? You know, so that was where I was, and 17 years later, I’m not someone who idolizes billionaires and leaders of big tech companies that have amassed and consolidated unprecedented amounts of control.
So, today… I feel like I’m being so loud, I don’t know if you… is it okay? Okay, I could hear the echoes, you know. So, today much of what I’ll talk about is how we can take back control and that is through collective, concerted action.
As you may know, I was fired from my job at Google in 2020. My story could have been different. Right, I could have not been speaking in front of you today. I could have disappeared. I could have not been in a position of running my own research institute. My career could have been completely destroyed. I could have had news articles upon articles smearing me. Don’t get me wrong, I had a lot of smearing, stalking, harassing, death threats, daily emails with the N-word, and other slurs, on top of losing my job. However, many of those before me who spoke up about injustices disappeared. No matter how brave or strong they were or whatever other characteristics we ascribe to them, they were not living in a time where they would be believed. So I’m grateful that mine turned out differently in spite of everything I went through. Why did it turn out differently?
Two words. Collective organizing. I was part of a community where we supported each other. I spent a long time building a network. Whether at Google or outside, I had a strategy to build a network with collective support and power. The number of people who organized on my behalf whether it’s in the background or publicly, including this department, people in this department, thank you, made it such that I could come out on the other end without my career and reputation completely destroyed.
When people talk about whistleblowing, it makes it sound like a solitary activity you know like a David and Goliath. In my view, that’s not really how I see it. What changes things is concerted, collected activity. If we all take on a little bit of risk, we keep all of us safe.
So, as you navigate the rest of your career, whether it’s industry, academia, civil society, government, or anywhere you go, remember to keep community building and collective organizing. From polaroid workers forcing the company to end its relationship with Apartheid South Africa to Amazon and Google workers currently organizing against project Nimbus, a contract with the Israeli military, worker organizing has changed the world.
No talk of ethics, whether it’s in the field of artificial intelligence or elsewhere, can be complete without labor protections such that workers can speak up when they see unethical work.
My support of concerted activity is why I’m donating my honorarium today to the Berkeley Basic Needs Center. Let’s give it up for the Berkeley Basic Needs Center. How can we ask students to do ethical work if they don’t have the power to say no to unethical work? If they are not paid a living wage? If they exist in a structure where a few dictate what the many can do? My message here in this case, it’s not necessarily to the graduates, it’s to the faculty, especially the senior, tenured ones. Support collective organizing by your students and others like adjunct professors who are often forced to have precarious job positions. Collective action is not only about protecting yourselves and each other, but many others too.
In Silicon Valley, there is an ethos of “move fast and break things,” and data-related labor is uncompensated, and models trained on these data are getting larger and larger with harmful consequences.
If you want to read more about that, I wrote a paper about it, apparently, it got me fired, but you know I won’t talk about that right now.
As Mary L. Gray and Siddharth Suri wrote in their book Ghost Work , Silicon Valley is creating a global underclass around the world. Similarly, journalist Karen Hao writes about AI colonialism in a MIT Tech Review series on the topic. I highly recommend that you all read it if you get a chance to do so. She describes exploitation by Silicon Valley-based companies whose founders are dropouts or graduates of elite institutions like this one right. Here, I get back to labor protections. If these companies had to adequately compensate the many data annotators they’re exploiting, do you think they’d move so fast to build larger and larger models that depend on this data?
They wouldn’t because their calculus would show that they wouldn’t be able to make such a huge profit if they had to pay a living wage. So I come back to collective organizing to protect yourselves, each other, and the wider world. You are in a place that has outsized influence in the world. Stopping harm where you are can have consequences that reverberate in so many places.
Work that you do locally, that you may not think is so important, can have huge consequences.
So, many times we don’t really believe this, right? We don’t believe how interconnected we are. We don’t believe that our small actions locally can have ripple effects. We believe that something far away won’t come to our door or that small actions close by won’t make a difference far away.
So, this is like my favorite thing. I read something recently, which really beautifully shows how this is not true, how interconnected we are, and you all might know this and I might just be like I might be too excited to tell you this and you’re like yeah I know that, but this was about how the Amazon forest, the life of our earth, gets a portion, a huge portion, of its nutrients from the Sahara desert so strong winds carry some of the sand in the desert, which ends up falling in the Amazon forest, nourishing it with nutrients like phosphorus contained in the sand. This was so amazing to me because think about how different the desert and the forest are.
We think of them as almost polar opposites, right? Do we ever think about the desert nourishing the forest? And the desert’s so far away from the Amazon forest right? So, what does this tell me? No matter how far we think we are from each other and how different from the “other,” we
are all very intimately interconnected. In spite of this, however, news regarding some people in the world, some parts of the world, don’t seem to be worthy has been completely muted because we don’t believe in our interconnectedness.
I was born and raised in Ethiopia. I’m of Eritrean descent and there’s currently a genocide in Ethiopia. There is a civil war accompanied by a genocide. It’s an estimated 500,000 people have perished in the last 18 months in the northern state of Tigray. Seven million people are under siege: no food, no medicine, no Internet this whole entire time. Tens of thousands of Eritrean refugees are unaccounted for. The Washington Post writes, “The World’s Deadliest War Isn’t in Ukraine, But in Ethiopia.” So, David Volodzko writes in The Nation, “If we compare the situation in Tigray to other ongoing armed conflicts, the numbers are startling. Looking at civilian deaths, for example, the war in Ukraine has resulted in less than 3,000 Ukrainian deaths, according to the UN Human Rights Office, while Tigray has seen upward of 500,000, as per estimates by Ghent University.”
However, how many of you have seen it in the news? Show of hands.
Like three. How many of you have seen people changing their profile pictures to stand in solidarity with Tigrayans? Let’s not forget that we are all so intimately connected.
What happens over there will come to our door one way or another.
When I started speaking up about a genocide in Tigray, calling it a genocide, I got incessantly attacked and harassed online, but that was not the most difficult part for me. The most difficult part was seeing the silence, minimization, denial and false equivalency by many Ethiopian and Eritrean intellectuals. Intellectuals you would hope would loudly condemn this in a united voice. It became really hard for me to speak to some of my own relatives or even long-time friends. It took me a long time to wrap my head around what’s going on. I’m still extremely disturbed seeing genocide denial in action.
But what consoles me is that there will always come a time when you feel lonely if you stand on the right side of history. That’s the whole point. If that wasn’t the case, then there wouldn’t be a need to speak up. You may find your community for collective action, but you might still find yourself lonely in terms of how whoever you consider to be your community acts. You might find yourself at odds with everyone else in your community at times. So, a journalist and Nobel laureate Maria Ressa said, “You need to actually live your values when it matters the most, not when it’s convenient. And the true test of your values is when you stand to lose something.”
No matter how beloved pop-culture makes us think many historical figures we admire were, those who stood on the right side of history were often hated. Not so long ago, in 2001, representative Barbara Lee of Oakland (who I was just also told is a UC Berkeley alum) was the only one out of 421 lawmakers to vote against the Authorization for Use of Military Force.
She was the only dissenter in the Senate or the House, the only one. She called it, the reason she voted against it she said that it was “a blank check to the president to attack anyone involved in the September 11 events, anywhere, in any country, without regard to our nation’s long-term foreign policy, economic, and national security interests, and without time limit.” So, she’s sort of been vindicated because a lot of people now agree that this was not the right thing to do, but imagine how lonely she was at the time. One out of, the only lawmaker, out of 421.
This never-ending “war on terror” that followed has claimed so many lives in the last two decades, especially those of Iraqis and Afghanis who suffer to this day. So representative Barbara Lee recalled in a Radiolab episode — it’s like one of my favorite podcasts, Radiolab, I got to do a plug for them — just a couple of years ago, she said in this episode, “Those attacks came and they came and they came. Death threats. So I had to have security day and night.”
So again, remember that when you’re on the right side, everything is going to try to tell you that you’re not. That you’re wrong. The weight of the whole system is gonna try to make you silent. So, thinking about all the horrors we’re facing in the world, like some of the things I described here, might fill you with a lot of despair, but remember that there’s always space for joy.
Like I said I was born and raised in Ethiopia and I’m of Eritrean descent. In 1998, there was a war between these two countries and people of Eritrean descent like us were getting deported from Ethiopia. We were very stressed of course, but still, I remember the get-together we had with our relatives. One of them was super exhausted because she couldn’t sleep at night because she was wondering if they were going to come for her because they come get you at night. You know so during this get-together, she took a nap on the couch, but we still took the time to enjoy the little moments we had with each other even though we didn’t know what tomorrow held for us.
Today is a day of celebration. Let me go back to that. So let’s end with this reminder: Always put your mask on before helping someone else.
Do not feel guilty for taking care of yourself, for respecting your boundaries, for saying no.
We all have our limits. The goal is not to burn out or to be a sacrificial lamb. The goal is for all of us to work collectively for a better future for all of us. That means we have to think about ourselves too so when you start organizing, you may be around people who constantly criticize how little you’re doing for something or someone else or a specific cause. Those who have many opinions about what you’re doing or not doing.
You need to also make sure to be around people who remind you to take care of yourself. People who think about how you are doing as an individual rather than only critiquing the work you’re doing. You need to remember to replenish yourselves, enjoy yourselves, take a time-out from everything when you need to, and celebrate your moments like today. So, with that, congratulations.
This was such a difficult few years and I’m in awe that you have gotten here. I hope you take a long time to take this in and celebrate. Congratulations again.
[Music: “Silver Lanyard” by Blue Dot Sessions ]
Outro: You’ve been listening to Berkeley Talks , a Berkeley News podcast from the Office of Communications and Public Affairs that features lectures and conversations at UC Berkeley. You can subscribe on Spotify, Apple Podcasts or wherever you listen. You can find all of our podcast episodes with transcripts and photos on Berkeley News at news.berkeley.edu/podcasts.